What to Do When Panic Sets In

I have noticed that my coping skills in circumstances I didn’t anticipate are pretty much nonexistent.  When things happen beyond my control, I find myself in a complete panic. My mind goes blank, I can’t think, my stress response goes through the roof, my heart feels like it’s beating out of my chest, and I can feel cortisol and adrenaline rushing through my veins.  I generally know that I am panicking but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Recently, I took my sister, Marlee, to her program at the Soul Studio, an art studio for individuals with disabilities.  She generally goes with her caregiver but there was a last minute change of plans and I quickly got ready and took her. Marlee generally loves to go to the studio and gets out of the car easily and walks right into the building.  On this day, however, she was having nothing to do with it. I tried coaxing her, singing to her, playing her favorite music on my phone, and waiting it out.

I don’t know if it was the last minute change in plans or if she didn’t feel well, but she clearly didn’t want to go into the building that day.  I noticed myself feeling anxious about getting her into the building but I was still able to troubleshoot at that time. I decided to get her wheelchair from the trunk of the car so she wouldn’t have to walk in. I lifted the chair out of the car and as I opened it up, I noticed a screw and some washers fall from the wheelchair.  I felt my anxiety rising at this point.

I didn’t know where the screw and washer came from. And by now, it’s half an hour into the start of Marlee’s program.  My cursory check to determine where the screw and washers came from does not reveal anything. I am not comfortable putting her into the wheelchair when it might not be stable and I don’t know how to get her into the building.  Every time I go near her to try to get her to walk into the building, she starts yelling.  

Now I start to feel panicky.  My heart is pounding in my chest, breathing becomes rapid, and I feel like I want to cry.  It doesn’t occur to me that I could figure out where the screw and washers came from and determine whether the wheelchair is stable or not.  It doesn’t occur to me that I could go into the studio and ask for help or that they might have a rolling chair we could use to get Marlee into the studio.  It doesn’t occur to me that I could just turn around and take her home. At that point in time, my mind is completely blank and I don’t know what to do. I automatically use my phone a friend, in this case my mom, to get advice as to what to do. 

I did eventually get Marlee into the building with the help of two staff members and a rolling chair.  Yes, that was the advice my mom gave me.

Later on, we discussed what I could have done in that situation.  There is no way I could have calmed down by using one of the breathing techniques I know.  When I’m in that state, I don’t have the wherewithal to close my eyes and breathe deeply. I was reminded of a tool I could have used and that I’ve forgotten was in my toolbox.  I used to use it when I was teaching and felt my anxiety rising in the lunchroom where there was so much stimulation.

This tool can help put things in perspective so I can figure out solutions to the situation I am dealing with.  It’s called “Freeze-Frame” and comes from HeartMath by Doc Childre. It’s described as a self-regulation and stress-reduction technique that allows people to unlock their natural intuitive guidance.  Here are the steps:

  1. Pause or stop what you are doing.  I think of stop from stop, drop and roll.
  2. Shift your focus to your heart for at least 10 seconds.  I put my hand on my heart so my focus goes there.
  3. Recall a positive, fun feeling or time in your life or a time when you felt safe and protected or connected with God, and try to re-experience that feeling
  4. From that perspective, feel into and ask yourself how you can solve the current problem
  5. Listen to the answer and take action

It’s a simple technique.  And, if I had used it, perhaps I would have realized that there was no real danger.  I might have been able to figure out that the wheelchair was actually safe. The screw and washers that had fallen out were part of the foot-rest which was not necessary to use to transport Marlee into the building. 

I am going to keep this tool top of mind moving forward.  In fact, I am going to practice it throughout the day when I have decisions to be made and not wait until I am in full blown stress response. I am determined to use it the next time a situation arises and I start to panic.  If I do, I am confident that I will actually be successful in finding a solution to the problem or obstacle that arises.  

Note:  The reason my mom was my phone a friend is that she has made a career out of helping people through these types of situations.  You can find her at belindaphillips.com or on Instagram @belindaphillipshealingcoaching. Follow me on Instagram @stressgirlnomore.

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